There is an old adage that children are more creative than adults.
That in order to become more creative, you should reconnect with your “inner child”.
Yet what does the science and research say?
Are children really more creative than adults?
The answer is a little complicated.
How children are more creative than adults
Numerous research studies have found that children can be much more creative than adults in certain instances.
- A series of studies showed that performance on divergent thinking tasks drops significantly every 5 years throughout childhood, indicating that children become less able to perform creative challenges as they get older, and especially as adults
- A 2017 Study by Gopnik et al showed that younger children (even pre-schoolers) were better able to learn a new physical or social causal relation than adolescents or adults, showing their mind was more flexible. Teenagers did show higher creativity on the social challenge though.
- A 2013 paper suggests that children engage more in imaginative play because it helps them develop the learning skills of causal-reasoning.
- A 2014 review, 2014 book and 2016 book indicate that higher levels of imaginative pretend play in childhood helps enhance creativity in adulthood. Another 2012 study showed that pretend play and creativity were also linked. However, another 2016 study shows it is not clear if simply engaging in pretend play leads to higher creativity as an adult.
- A 2018 study showed that as we get older, our implicit views of our abilities and mindsets change, and these are more fixed in adults than in children, leading to lower divergent thinking scores as we get older
- A 2021 analysis of multiple studies showing how creativity is high in childhood, and can be enhanced across our lifespan
- The consensus amongst creativity researchers is that every child is born with the ability to be creative
- A series of studies by KH Kim has shown that creativity scores for large populations of people fall as they get older, and also are falling over time overall compared to previous generations
- A 2012 study showed that children can display creative traits and performance in a wide range of activities. Examples such as gardening and construction were as valuable for supporting creative thinking as ones traditionally associated with creativity, for example, music and painting.
- A 2010 study showed that children see more value in creatively changing an object than other changes, and this effect is much more powerful than in adults. This implies that children value creativity in their peers highly.
While children’s creativity when studied scientifically is often seen as a static measurement, many scientists now believe it has the capacity to change moment-to-moment and a more flexible way to study and measure it is required.
We have all seen this first-hand. Children’s thinking is free and not yet constrained by the “rules” dictated by society, or knowledge of what works or is the “correct way“. Thanks to this freedom, they are able to come up with solutions to problems which adults would never have thought of.
But why are children’s creative abilities apparently falling as they get older?
There may be a number of reasons for this, including both nature and nurture.
In the nature (biology and genetics) category, young children have not yet significantly developed the executive brain regions which result in impulse control, awareness of social judgement and mental filtering. This change often happens around the age of 9-10, resulting in children becoming less willing to do creative things which make them stand out from their peers and society, and their creative expression may become more realistic rather than imaginative. There is also the growth of myelin throughout the brain as we age, making us think less flexibly and wanting to keep doing things which we know work. Finally, we also begin to develop the mental networks responsible for negative biases, which make us want to take less risks and keep the status quo.
From the nurture (society) perspective, teachers and schools do not realise how they subtly punish creativity in their students, even if it is unwillingly. This teaches children how it is better to conform and give the correct answers, which can often unfortunately lead to children developing a fixed (instead of growth) mindset and suffering from perfectionism later on. There is often also a social and family pressure to focus on learning topics and doing work which will get you a well-paid job, and many families tell their children that artistic and creative fields will not allow them to earn enough or have a good, safe life.
As a result, as children grow and develop, their desire and permission to engage in creative activities may decrease steadily, resulting in them being less creative as an adult.
How adults are more creative than children
However, this is not the whole story.
Even if children are on the whole more imaginative than adults, and able to solve problems creatively, it is almost always the adults who actually create things which society values.
Think of almost every piece of art, invention, business or major problem solved.
It was done by someone past their adolescence, after they had lived their life gaining many different experiences, practiced their craft and improved their skills over time.
Creativity is also very much linked to a specific area of expertise, or domain. Just because you are creative in one domain (e.g. music, coding), it does not mean you will also be creative in a different domain, such as cooking or sculpture. In this way, just because an adult is not engaging in imaginative play like a child, it does not mean that child will be better able to create something creative like that adult can, given the levels of experience and skill the adult may have developed over the years.
Finally, it is worth looking at what exactly “creativity” means.
According to researchers, for something to be truly creative, it has be both novel (new, original) and useful (have value).
Children, with their high scores in imaginative divergent thinking, are very good at coming up with things that are new and novel. But they are not necessarily as good at executing on their ideas and making something useful.
According to one of the world’s key creativity researchers, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who did extensive research into creativity and happiness as well as flow, this is a reason why children cannot be considered truly creative.
I disagree with him on this point, as children may be creative in another way. From the 4C framework of creativity, they are very high in “mini-C” and “little-C” creativity, but not so strong in “Big-C” or “Pro-C” creativity. But they are still highly creative nonetheless, just in a different way.
In a 2011 keynote on the subject, researcher Vlad Glăveanu also argued that much of the “creativity” we ascribe to children is from what society thinks should be true.
Thanks to the research, we now have evidence that children are indeed highly imaginative, appreciative of creativity and creative themselves.
They perform very highly when given creativity tests.
And this performance appears to decrease as they get older into adulthood.
But this does not mean that adults are also not creative.
In fact, it is in adulthood that we can use the knowledge and skills which took time to learn, and experience in a domain, to actually produce the creative output which children would find impossible.
Both children and adults are creative. And we should celebrate and encourage that to continue throughout their lifetime.
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